It’s fair to say that Lionel Messi remains the best player in the world. This past weekend, he contrived to put together a fascinating and unique performance. Barcelona eked a 1-0 win out against Real Valladolid, with one goal a small return from twenty shots, two of which were Messi penalties. Barcelona regularly take twenty or more shots, and this was the eighth time they’ve done it in La Liga this season. What was unusual was Messi’s involvement. Of 20 shots, he took 12 of them and laid on the key pass for 7 others.
It’s been widely reported that he was involved in all 20, but that’s simply not true as late in second half stoppage time Philippe Coutinho ruined everything by propelling a non-Messi influenced ball high into the stands, and a shot’s a shot, so that was that. But that doesn’t change the fundamental measurement of the accomplishment. Here at StatsBomb Towers, we dusted off the microfilm and took a look through the history to find any kind of equivalent game. My initial feeling was that this was a scarce performance; sure, players take double digit shots in a game and there are many games on record with over 30 shots for a team and a forward loading up double digit shots. The true rarity of this accomplishment is for a player to be so singularly involved in a team’s attack. It would make more sense if it was say, an aging Argentina side desperately lumbering against Iceland in the 2018 World Cup (Messi shot 11 times and logged 3 key passes that day, but that was just 50% of 28 total shots), but for a team like Barcelona, to funnel everything through their talisman felt unusual.
And it was. To be directly involved in 95% of a team’s shots is as extremely rare, especially with any significant volume of team shots. To be involved in all but one of 20 shots is off the charts.
Just hasn’t happened.
There are a bunch of matches where a player had an involvement in all a team’s shots but they’re in games where the team had 10 of fewer attempts. You won’t be impressed if I tell you Solly March accounted for all of Brighton’s six attempts against Chelsea on the 16th of December 2018 with four shots and two key passes. You won’t be impressed at all. Go above 12 shots and already there are no cases where players are involved in all but one of their team’s shots. All but two shots? Yes, and WE HAVE A CONTENDER: Kylian Mbappé for PSG against Lyon last October had nine shots, three key passes for a total of 12 out of 14 shots. Nice! Even better, the same day as the aforementioned “Solly March Game”, our man Messi put up seven shots and seven key passes in a 16 shot, 5-0 Barcelona win over Levante; 14 of 16! So close, and enough to rank second! Final scores on the doors, a big 1-2 for Messi with the young pretender in third.
That’s some fun stats.
“I watched the game, stats man, he was not great, you’re getting excited about nothing.”
Over on twitter @thedummyrun has done a nice job evaluating the varied takes on Messi’s performance, from stats to eye test and everything in between and made the point that Messi gave the ball away a lot during the game. And that is valid. Teams need to be efficient in how they balance and use their attacks, regardless of how good their star player is. Barcelona have had many successes throughout Messi’s career but rarely has he been the entire focal point of their attack in games, he’s usually been ably supported by other world stars. It shouldn’t be falling on him to do it all.
As such, the wider perspective here is interesting to ponder. Using some rudimentary usage numbers, Messi at 20% is behind only Adnan Januzaj in this season’s La Liga (~21%). That means 20% of Barcelona’s possessions finish with him but with an excellent 33% of them involving a shot or a key pass to finish off. Now Januzaj is talented but wasteful, Messi is not. But also 20% is super high for anyone (the better question here could well be “why you no pass, Adnan?”) and to see so much play channeling through Messi, even though he’s Lionel Messi, poses questions around the team’s general efficiency. It’s also a rate that has risen from 19% last season. We have these outlier games that show isolated cases of more play channeling through him, but it may well be a trend.
So what’s going on? It probably isn’t a preferable way for Barcelona to play even allowing for Messi’s undeniable class. The attacking blend that Barcelona can now field still feels that it is adapting to a post-Neymar world. Where are other possessions ending? Ousmane Dembélé is responsible for 17% of them, again up from 16% last season. More and more of Barcelona’s play is channeling through these two players and the blend of an aging Luis Suárez, now less the dervish-like player they signed and more of a scorer means there is less of a natural fluidity in their front line. I remain sad that peak Suárez was pushed to the head of the MSN triumvirate and Barcelona lost the all round energetic madness of a do-it-all forward, because amazingly, they already had two better players for the creative scoring roles in behind. Now, fresh from a mis-sorted column on an all seasons scouting list, Kevin Prince-Boateng has checked in as an option. Elsewhere, it’s tricky: Malcom, Dembélé and Coutinho have all arrived for big money and for various reasons it seems the Barcelona front three isn’t quite picking itself these days, and Messi may well feel an added responsibility to deliver.
It’s important to note though, beyond questions about how Barcelona are running their attack, from a statistical perspective, Messi is not declining. His contribution to goals–both expected and actual–remains absolute top tier. If you’re even trying to be critical, the only angle to come at is that perhaps he’s not as good as his own younger self. At 31 he remains a unique talent and as we’ve seen here he’s still setting (non-longevity related, they’ll come) statistical benchmarks too.